Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Lost in Austen

I know it is verboten to suggest that you may enjoy a movie adaptation more than you enjoy the book itself, but I'm gonna say it. I'm gonna say it. I love the Pride & Prejudice movie, but I have never been able to push my way through the book. I'm hiding behind a stack of Bronte novels until the firestorm dies down out there.

Okay. In my defense, it is not for lack of trying. I have curled up with literature's favorite repressed love story several times. In theory, it should be my favorite kind of book: spunky heroine, spunky authoress, social intrigue, and most importantly, British people riding British tropes like little trope show ponies. And yet... and yet.

For years, I have been able to hold up my end in an Austen conversation through sheer osmosis, even inherited a bit of the Darcy inspired swoon that is so common among young women of a certain age, but have been haunted by the nagging reality. I have never read a Jane Austen novel. As someone who can read a couple of books in a day if she tries, I sometimes feel as if I don't have an excuse to read a book that I don't have interest in if it is canon. There's almost a sense of responsibility to yourself, to better understand common influences. Everyone wants to feel well read and culturally in tune. Sometimes, when something that resonates with so many people doesn't strike a chord in you, it can make you feel a little broken. And so I have nursed the sore of my Austen free reading record for a very long time indeed. With this winter sowing its brain death seeds in every New Englanders' cup of tea by February, I decided that there was no better way to fight the slump of the season than by taking on a reading challenge. And, I reasoned with myself, what could possibly be more challenging than Austen?

I knew I couldn't read Pride and Prejudice. If I failed to complete it yet again, I might never recover and even the over-arching cultural charm of the work might fall short of reviving my interest. I've seen the movie for Sense and Sensibility and love it because Emma Thompson and, just in case I despised the book, I steered clear so as not to ruin a favored film. And so I chose Emma, the only major work that I was completely and utterly unfamiliar with. As a bonus, someone dear in my life often refers to me as "Miss Emma Wodehouse" and I figured I might as well use this challenge as an opportunity to get to the bottom of that comparison (by the way, I can see it now).

It was rough.
I made excuses to avoid it.
I watched an entire season of Criminal Minds.
I decided I was behind on my aimless internet reading and took admirable steps to repair that.
And when I pulled myself over that finish line and everyone and their best friends got married, I looked back on the entire week that it took me to read my first Austen novel and realized

I didn't hate it.

While I may not have converted into a Jane Austen fan by any stretch of the imagination, I am glad that I undertook this because I now completely understand why people adore her works. I realized it was never a matter of quality, but a question of taste. I don't read romance novels. Unless there is a love interest standing in the way of my taut non-romantic conflict, I don't really want to read about it. In high school, I would reach the romance portion of a YA novel and roll my eyes, flipping past all of the quivering, sideways glances, and sighing. I love romantic films and, for whatever reason, that medium resonates with me, but I've never had much of a desire for my literature to be served hot, if you know what I'm saying. That being said, Austen will probably never be what excites me about coming home from a long day of work. But at least I now know why she provides just that for so many people.

Jane Austen totally gets it. I imagine her sitting on the edge of the activity in the parlor and simply watching. She was so very clearly a great student of the strange ways of the human heart in every kind of relationship, daughter-father, woman-man, woman-woman, and every nuanced sort of interaction in between. I felt an enormous intimacy while reading Emma, watching unbiased character sketches play out in just the way as people always do, of any class or creed, petty and generous and dear and conniving in turn, all in the same heart. Austen understood the power of a single word or the pain that can come from an off-handed sort of gesture. She understood what drives us to wound or to interpret our way to being wounded. Reading her dialogue, I simmered a little in my crock-pot of literary elitist jealousy. The dialogue was so alive and believable, that I felt as if it was overheard. Austen had the rare ability to know which words needed to be left out to say the most and writers spend their entire lives without even realizing that that is a lesson they need to learn. But Austen does not need me to defend her or even to go on about what made her so special. With or without my patronage, she has gently walked into so many hearts throughout history and whispered them love and hope and healing. My taste or opinion cannot do the slightest bit to change how darn wonderful that is. All I can do is bow my head to her prevailing charm and gentle wit and scuttle back to my museum of quirky wonders.

"There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart."
~ Jane Austen's "Emma"

So true, Jane. So true.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Reading Goals for 2015

February seems like a funny time to get this post written, but I am actively avoiding reading Emma (sorry, Jane) so it feels like a good time to update.

In this post from September (oh dear, I have not been particularly diligent, have I) I discussed the evolution of my perspective on my own reading life. It has been an exciting and validating process for a life-long "book-worm" to take a "hobby" and begin to view it as a life-style. That being said, I will keep this brief and express a couple of goals I have for myself in 2015 as a reading year.

Stage One
Read more diversely. 2014 was the year that I really became aware of the existing disparities in the publishing community, particularly for authors of color. My own reading experience has been pretty white-washed up to this point and I want to change that. The scope through which I see the world seems small for the amount that I have read, but that can be attended to. I am also trying to expand my reading of the history of people of color as penned by people of color. The victors write the history for the schoolbooks, but the truth is infinitely more complex and it is definitely out there.

Stage Two
The year of Arthur. In 2015, my major reading project will be the original Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur paired with the complete T.H. White's Once and Future King saga. Growing up, I could not put anything Arthurian down. T.A. Barron's Lost Years of Merlin series and Gerald Morris's The Squire's Tales , paired with so many other stand-alone titles and a brief spat of obsession with the questionably decent musical "Camelot", defined my reading and writing dork self in major ways. Last year, I binge-watched BBC's "Merlin" and I binge-watched it hard. My Morgana Pendragon love is a roaring fire. Anyway, this particular project is the extension of that obsession, but in a more grown-up way. Not to mention, Pendragon Cycle? I'm coming for you.

Stage Three
Reread The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and complete The Silmarillion and Books of Lost Tales. These books are so familiar to me that my tattered copies of the movie editions have soft corners from my greasy child-thumbs. I read and re-read the Battle for Helm's Deep over and over again. An entire wall of my room is a topographical map of Mordor. And, as I'm sure it was for so many people, Tolkien's masterpieces are the reason I started to write fantasy fiction, my dearest literary love. With that in mind, it has been too long since I sat down and disappeared to Middle Earth.

Hundreds of pages of poorly written LOTR fan-fiction in binders with maps hand-drawn in pencil. Fighting over the Legolas bookmark with my best friend.
Jejune summerwinterautumnspring afternoons spent living life as "the last of elf-kind" in the backyard.
Prophecies. Rhyming prophecies everywhere in everything I wrote forever.

I think that's all that need be said.

So those are my three major reading goals for 2015 (with all of the other books to be read in between). As for the reading goal I'm working on at this very moment? Jane Austen. Read a Jane Austen book. Any Jane Austen book. Trust me, I will have a lot to say whenever this book is over. That is, if it is ever over.

Friday, September 26, 2014


When I started this project, back in January, I really failed to take into account a few of the realities that would make it difficult. Not least among these is the fact that I cannot stop buying books. The intent of the project was to whittle down my collection of unread books as I prepared to move out of my parent's house. Noble, certainly, but completely ridiculous as I failed to take into account how I had acquired them in the first place- that is, constantly and with glee. Imagine cackling and achy smile muscles because those are the facts. As the book hauls continued, I lost count of how many books were on the list and I continued to accumulate volumes far faster than I read them. Then, there were all of the books I borrowed from other people and... you get the idea. 

Still, I would in no way consider this effort a failure. Over the past several months, through the influence of the books I have forced myself to read (Toni Morrison's "Beloved", Ray Bradbury's short stories, Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray", David Sedaris, and other non-fiction that I may otherwise have shied from) and more seriously seeking out resources such as writers on twitter, the Diversity in Fiction movement, and the amazing Book Riot podcast, I have begun to frame my reading as a "reading life". It has always been that, a separate feeling existence that informs my character and real-world responses, but I had never thought of it that way. There is a lot of power in simply changing the way you name a thing and, consequently, look at the thing. I am now more aware of striking the fine balance between reading things that I simply don't want to read and still managing to read widely and deeply. I feel more responsibility for what I consume and who it is by and how it affects my perspective. But this has not limited me at all. If anything, I am more hungry than I have ever been. The writing itch has returned. There is eagerness and inspiration and I do not forget to look at the night sky so often. One needs to be reminded.

I just finished Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. While it wades in ambiguous waters a little too often, the heart of the work still comes across. Read because you are hungry and then use it to feed others. Study art to create art. Study art to create the life you are capable of. Stay hungry and create your own opportunities to come to the table. Be comfortable with knowing little so that you never run the risk of thinking you know anything at all, because that would be truly limiting. 

I am going to continue to maintain this blog, even if no one else reads it, because I want to remember and to share this hour of my life and how what I am reading is keeping the light on. May that light always bring people to a home filled with books. Anyway, I should definitely be working on my TBR list... all 1,199 of them.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Hen Frigates by Joan Druett

It all started with Moby Dick. My mother recounts the tale of my love affair with Moby Dick with great enthusiasm and frequency. How I brought it home from the library, my first real tome of a book and announced that I was reading it. I was probably eight or nine years old. I remember pulling it off of the shelf, a little intimidated, but mostly stirred by its heft and reputation. Here was a real classic- a grown-up classic. The closest I had come to the much-revered "canon" was my mother reading Little Women out loud to me, a cluster of memories that have bled into one great warmth over time. Moby Dick seemed the right kind of rite of passage for my reading life, a thing I was actively developing at that time, without necessarily being aware of it. Here is my mother's favorite part of the story, though. I disappeared upstairs with my library haul. There was silence for a time and then the sound of someone goose-stepping down the stairs. I walked past her, collected a dictionary, and then took myself back upstairs. For the next two weeks, she would find me laid out on any variety of surfaces around the house with the spine on Moby Dick cracked and the enormous family dictionary laid out beside. And that's the story of how I read my first big-kid classic, Moby Dick

This was going somewhere. Oh right, Hen Frigates. The great white whale was the beginning of a life-long fascination with all things maritime - pirates, sea critters, all things that sail, swim, and lap against the shore-line. Joan Druett's book on women who went to sea with their husbands in a time when they didn't even have rights on land is impeccably researched, well put together, respectful, and earnest. She uses an enormous amount of narrative pulled directly from the diaries, letters, and musings of the "hens" themselves and speculates only within the parameters provided by those first-hand accounts. I was so struck by the lives of these everyday women, bearing up or tumbling down in the most unpredictable of environments, in the best or worst of times, and I got to hear it in their own voices. Rough or refined, nagging or gentle, all so unique, with such varied bags of troubles. They are so human and wonderful and this book made me fall in love with history again for the reasons that originally brought me to it- common people. Ordinary people living out the lives given to them, loving and suffering and finding joy in the strange occurrences of lives that burn brightly in their own quarters and then go out. Ms Druett has ensured that for this fine and unlikely breed, the wives of merchant captains, there will always be a candle burning. I'll read anything this woman writes.

Shelf Status: Keeping to loan out to other history dorks
If You Liked Hen Frigates, You May Like: In the Heart of the Sea

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

One Sentence Summary: Marco and Celia are the pawns of their masters, weaving a circus of dark beauty each night for the gratification of an ominous challenge, but when they fall in love, the veil will be torn asunder and they must be more clever than fate and stronger than death to bear what is to come.

Excerpt: "The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not."

I was primed for this book. The thought of a dark circus- the tantalizing possibility of such a setting and tone, has lingered long at the back of my mind, planted by Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. I attempted to read that book every year at Halloween time for several years before I was able to creepy-crawl myself past the sequence when the boys are in the tree and watching the demented nude dancing of the troupe through the windows. Don't remember the part? Well, I do, because it was what sent me skittering under the covers every October for at least three Octobers. When I was old enough for the creepy mood of that book to be more enjoyable than torture, it became a precious doorway to me- to Bradbury, to beautifully constructed horror, and to the tenuous space where dreams and nightmares meet through story. 

The Night Circus is not horror. It is not constructed to be disturbing or even particularly off-putting, but unfolds as one may open a mysterious invitation, tempting you into complete immersion. You open the book and are walking through the tantalizing iron gate- it is a book that gives you a feeling of having been selected, uniquely privileged to see what lies within, behind, and then beyond. Morgenstern's imagery is compelling and unique. She writes with the desperate momentum of someone who has carried a story inside them for too long.  It unfolds, each page with wonders more beautiful and fully realized than the last. I found myself thoroughly hypnotized by the world she had created, joyful in its excesses, and blind to its holes. In that way, The Night Circus once again returned me to Bradbury- a descriptive writer's write, a playground for dreamers.

There were some holes, of course. This is not the perfect book. The protagonists sometimes feel thinly plotted, ghostly even, beside the supporting cast. I could not wrest Thiessen, Bailey, or the alluring contortionist from my mind- the man in gray, layers as numerous as the elements of his suit, demanded his audience, but Celia and Marco sometimes felt insubstantial, flimsy vehicles for the focus of this story- the Night Circus itself. I can see how, if you were not a reader who was swayed by setting as character, this book would leave something to be desired. The plot is similar- its nuances are sweeter than the grand scheme. I would have liked a more aggressively detailed magic system, if we are going to get specific. Perhaps it was part of the mystery that the science of the unknown stood on feeble legs indeed, and this may be a matter of preference, but I like my magic served well done.

Ultimately, one gets the feeling that what this circus is to the reveurs, it's caravan following in the story, the book is to its author- wish fulfillment. Luckily, I felt that she succeeded enormously, because that is exactly what it is for the reader as well. Several weeks later, I cannot shake the sensation of this book- caramel corn. Light, quickly consumed, and best when shared.

Shelf Status: Keeping to share heavily
If You Liked The Night Circus, you may like: Something Wicked This Way Comes, Airborn, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky (21 of 171)

One Sentence Summary: Food writer Mark Kurlansky stumbled upon the lost files of the Federal Writer's Program of the Great Depression- files where they discussed the food at the center of households and communities, ways of eating before the highway system and food preservation modified our regional food habits forever. This book is a collection of those essays.
Food is our common ground, a universal experience.
-James Beard
I love books about food. My entire life, my mother was a brilliant cook who catered (pun intended) to the varied whims of the family table without ever sacrificing quality or, for that matter, quantity. Throughout my childhood, she would try valiantly to get me to take any interest whatsoever in even the most minute of the sacred rites that defined the kitchen: pinching oregano into a sauce, cracking black pepper, or grating parmesan. I resented all of these tasks and set them on the same level as washing dishes or putting things in the recycling, things that carried the suspicious feel of chores. About a year ago, I suddenly became interested in cooking- perhaps it is an interest that comes with maturity, although it is more likely a skill that grows alongside necessity. I was suddenly attracted to the making aspect of it. I've never been able to make much of anything. Doing things with my hands gives me a special type of anxiety, the same that I experience with dancing. But cooking? This I could grasp. There is a fluidity to it, a deeply creative aspect that appeals to me, but aside from all of that I am attracted to this deep sense of community.

Mark Kurlansky is the sort of non-fiction writer that you would imagine would be excellent company at a dinner party- full of information and enthusiasm about it. Still, even his excitement over these tid-bits from the past could not save some of the writing from a lack of editing and consistency. The format made it a little difficult to read- one second you were enjoying someone's lush prose over Creole gatherings, in the next you were subjected to halting and awkward descriptions of barbecue, all crushed up next to each other. It was a book that required some weeding to enjoy. Still, I understand the editor's intent. Kurlansky was hoping to give each author their moment, to make Younger Land as close to what it was originally intended to be as possible. If you're a foodie, or a history dork, there was much to gain despite poor passages. This book is a treasure trove of funky recipes and a great reminder of the importance of community, but is also a great instigator of thought. Is it good that we eat the way that we do? Is variety really the spice of life- or is instead better to coax the food in every way, from seed to mouth? What have we gained and, because of it, what have we lost? Delicious questions.

Shelf Status: Passing along to Erin of the canning blog, Putting Up with Erin. That seems like the right home for it, for now.
If you liked The Food of a Younger Land, you may like: Eating Animals, The Omnivore's Dilemma